Thursday, May 1, 2008

The latest Microsoft and Intel technologies

If you buy online, laptop manufacturers usually offer a vast array of configuration options, including various versions of Windows Vista (more on Vista versions in the Important Considerations section below). Although you can still opt for Windows XP with a few laptops through June, the default choice will be Vista. One consideration is that many printers, scanners, other hardware and software is not yet compatible with Vista, and Internet forums are full of complaints from those who couldn't get their older peripherals or software to work with Vista. Microsoft is beta testing the first major revision of Vista to be publicly released in the second half of 2008.

In the past, multiple reviews of the same laptop could be misleading if reviewers reached differing conclusions. That's because critics often reviewed different configurations of a laptop. As you would expect, any given computer will perform better in performance tests with faster processors and more RAM. Additional upgrades, such as a faster hard drive or more video RAM, will also help a computer ace benchmark tests. Vista largely levels the playing field for comparing reviews. The minimum system requirements for running Vista are so high that only budget computers with this operating system are likely to be undercapacitated. Most of the specifications for running Vista are pretty standard except for the RAM requirements. While Microsoft says Vista Home Basic will run with 512MB of RAM, all experts say 1GB provides a much better experience. For other versions of Vista, Microsoft says 1GB is needed, but experts say 2GB is better.

Centrino Duo chips and technology, also called Santa Rosa by the media, is the most popular processor/wireless scheme for laptops right now. There's also a business version, which is called Centrino Pro. According to experts, the platform has no negatives; Centrino Duo/Santa Rosa technology runs Vista better and does significantly improve battery life. Unless otherwise noted, all configurations of laptops covered in this report use Centrino Duo/Santa Rosa technology.

Centrino Duo technology includes an integrated graphics chip that provides full Vista Aero support (available in all versions of Vista except Home Basic), high-definition output and other improvements. Experts say this integrated video solution is better than previous incarnations, but still not as good as a dedicated video card.

Intel Turbo Memory -- another new feature -- enables 512MB or 1GB of flash memory, which should speed booting, opening of programs and document saving. The chipset can accommodate up to 4GB of RAM. Added wireless capabilities and power-conserving features are also part of the platform. But reviews say that gains in battery life -- 25 percent to 50 percent -- are the most remarkable improvement of all.

Intel recently introduced an even newer generation of mobile processors; these are code-named Penryn (and that's the term you'll find in articles and reviews), but marketed by the company under the Core 2 Duo name, the same as the older chips. Clock speeds range from 2.1GHz to 2.8GHz. More significant, the chips have more level 2 cache: 6MB in the top three chips. Penryn chips are smaller and more energy efficient than their predecessors. In theory, they should improve all performance aspects of mobile computing.

At the time of this update, Penryn-based models were trickling to market and just beginning to receive reviews. PC World is among those that rave about the first Penryn-based laptop tested. Articles say that there is an increase in performance, but that it might not make a significant difference for most tasks. Penryn laptop prices are certain to be higher, but that will also push down the prices of laptops using the older Santa Rosa chipsets.

Laptops using AMD processors are also available, and these are typically less expensive notebooks with Intel chips. However, Intel Centrino chips are faster and can have more onboard cache. Faster and variable bus speed is also possible -- this can speed in-out data transfer and conserve power.

Despite the large number of laptop brands, most are actually made by Taiwanese companies such as Quanta, Inventec, Compal, Asustek (Asus) or Wistron. Better-known makers such as Dell, HP, Sony, Lenovo and others add their own components and configurations.

Manufacturers are now targeting laptops to two entertainment and two business markets. The entertainment notebook computers are oriented to gaming or multimedia (specifically watching movies), and the higher-end laptops are well suited for both purposes. The business laptops are made to be either durable and reliable or thin and light. While any of these laptops can be used for any purpose, the target market determines the size and weight of the laptop, as well as the included hardware. So, you can start choosing a laptop by prioritizing your own needs. For example, if you travel a lot, you may value light weight and long battery life over a large screen. Conversely, if you plan to use your laptop mainly at home, travel weight or battery life will likely be less important to you than a larger screen.

Multimedia and gaming laptops
Larger laptops have more internal space, and that makes it possible to include a dedicated video card instead of video that's integrated into the motherboard. Video cards have RAM dedicated to the display, which enables rapidly moving video to look natural. That's not essential for playing modern action games or watching movies, but it can make a big difference in performance.

Gaming-oriented laptops most commonly have 17-inch widescreen displays, but the range is from 15.4 to 20.1 inches. Combination DVD-ROM/CD burner drives are standard. DVD burners are usually an option. A few laptops include drives that will play Blu-ray movies (it's usually an add-on option).

Notebook computers with 17-inch widescreens are barely portable, but they do make a more functional substitute for a desktop computer. If total functionality, multimedia features and fast performance are a priority over portability, you should first consider one of these gaming laptops.

Large multimedia and gaming laptops are often marketed as desktop replacements; most reviewers say desktop computers are still faster with more features, and they cost far less. For video editing, Photoshop or fast-action competitive gaming, desktops still have an edge. But for more pedestrian uses, a modern laptop could easily be your main computer.

The Dell XPS M1730 (starting at *est. $2,400) is a nearly unanimous choice as the best gaming laptop. It's typically reviewed at around $4,000 with dual Nvidia video cards in SLI configuration (which improves fast response times). It is honored with top ratings and/or Editors' Choice awards by NotebookCheck.net, Laptop magazine, CNet.com, PC Magazine, ExtremeTech and Pocket-lint.co.uk. As this report is being published, Dell announced that the M1730 is being upgraded with Penryn chips. That will undoubtedly overcome the few performance shortcomings reviewers experienced and probably improve the battery life, which isn't very good in reviewers' tests.

On the plus side, reviews say the Dell M1730 gaming laptop is fast and powerful, making it more comparable with desktop gaming computers than conventional laptops, according to ExtremeTech. NotebookCheck.net is impressed with the bright display, performance and surprisingly quiet operation. Gaming performance is mixed but unsurpassed in the latest reviews, pointing to a driver problem that's since been fixed, according to some critics. Some reviewers criticize the Dell gaming laptop's price, but the majority opinion is that the XPS M1730 is a good value. TrustedReviews.com is a dissenting voice, saying that the M1730 "largely disappoints."

The Dell M1730 has every frill you might expect in a high-end or gaming laptop, including four flashy color choices, lots of lights, many wireless capabilities and a game panel LCD. A Blu-ray player or burner are options. The 1920 x 1200 pixel 17-inch widescreen display impresses reviewers. The high-resolution screen also makes the Dell XPS gaming laptop a good choice for office work, although reviewers note that office lighting is likely to cause glare. The configuration is highly customizable, and Dell regularly updates options. In its base configuration, the Dell weighs 10.6 pounds -- even without the weight of the power adapter, a case and perhaps an extra battery, that's a lot to carry.

The Alienware Area-51 m9750 (starting at *est. $1,500) is the closest competitor to the Dell XPS M1730. PC Magazine's Cisco Cheng claims, "Dell easily reclaims the throne from Alienware as the top pioneer in laptop gaming." NotebookCheck.net gives the edge to the Alienware but complains that workmanship of the display could be better, the display is unsuitable for outdoor use, and the laptop is loud.

The Alienware gaming laptop (note that Dell now owns Alienware) has many high-end options. As with the Dell-branded XPS, you can add a Blu-ray burner and a solid-state or extra hard drive. You can add a TV tuner and connect to a home theater system. However, the chassis only comes in black with the alien logo.

Both Dell and Alienware gaming laptops offer the latest technologies as they become available and similar pricing, so performance tests that distinguish between them are only snapshots of specific high-end configurations at a date in the past. You could base a choice between the brands on looks, promotions, or pricing/options distinctions that exist on the date you configure your system.

Power-hungry high-end components are enemies of battery life. In tests, the Dell and Alienware gaming laptop batteries lasted from less than an hour to nearly two hours.

The HP Pavilion HDX Entertainment Notebook PC (starting at *est. $2,000) predates the Dell and Alienware gaming laptops, so reviews are older, and we found no direct comparisons between them. The HDX differs from the Dell and Alienware gaming laptops mainly in its enormous 20.1-inch widescreen display -- a first for laptops when it debuted. Hewlett-Packard keeps updating the options; the latest improvement is Penryn processors. The manufacturer has also lowered the entry-level price by a thousand dollars since last summer, when the HDX gaming laptop debuted. Nicknamed the "Dragon," the HP Pavilion HDX Entertainment Notebook PC tops competitors in performance tests by all reviewers. It may be as good for gaming as any laptop, but dual video cards are not an option.

The HP laptop is great for multimedia, but experts differ on whether the huge size of the HP gaming laptop -- with a dual-hinged 20.1-inch widescreen display and a weight of at least 15.5 pounds -- is a strength or a deal-breaker. It probably depends on your point of view. NotebookReview.com concludes that "if you can justify the price and the size, the HDX is still the best desktop replacement and home entertainment notebook on the market today."

Price (commonly tested configurations run around $4,000), size and weight aren't the Dragon's only detractions. Laptop magazine notes that the one-year warranty is chintzy relative to the price of the gaming laptop. Computer Shopper cites poor battery life. On the other hand, reviewers love the huge display and extra multimedia features. Analog and HDTV TV tuners head that list. You can also get a Blu-ray DVD drive. The Dragon has 256 or 512MB of video RAM and five integrated speakers. Since it is a television and DVD player as well as a computer, it comes with a remote control.

Reviewers and undoubtedly most gaming fanatics challenge the notion of a budget gaming computer or even a gaming laptop (as opposed to a desktop). While you will be competitively disadvantaged at a LAN party without a high-end gaming laptop, some relatively affordable machines are suitable for playing the latest games at home.

The Asus G1 (starting at *est. $1,550) and G2 series (starting at *est. $1,750) stand out among budget gaming laptops. Asustek makes laptops for better-known brands, and buying the company's own Asus brand can literally amount to skipping the middleman. These Asus gaming laptops are not customizable (although they can be upgraded). They are sold in stock configurations through brick-and-mortar and online dealers such as Amazon.com and Newegg.com. To give buyers configuration options, Asus makes several models in each series. Unfortunately, some of the individual models are only available through one or two resellers.

Reviewers identify the entry-level Asus G1S (starting at *est. $1,550) as the best value. ExtremeTech compared it with two gaming laptops at more than twice the price, and decided it is a better value than the megabuck models. The 6.8-pound Asus G1S has a 15.4-inch screen. The Asus two-year limited warranty is unmatched for a mainstream nonbusiness computer. Asus will even pay shipping both ways. Tech support, however, is not a free call. Versions of the G1S gaming laptop include a 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, a 200GB 7200RPM SATA hard drive, an Nvidia GeForce 8600GT video card with 256MB of RAM, a backpack carrier and a gaming mouse. Battery life is not very long, according to reports. Excessive bloatware (unnecessary software, including offers for Internet service or security applications) is another complaint.

We’re intrigued by the Micro Express IFL9025 (starting at *est. $1,190). PC World rates it as the best power laptop, even in its base configuration. It is the fastest laptop the magazine has ever tested. The catch is that it was the first Penryn-equipped laptop reviewed by PC World. The review exists in a vacuum: we found few other reviews of laptops tested with Penryn CPUs and no other recent reviews of any Micro Express gaming laptops (or indeed any Micro Express laptops).

Although not a major manufacturer, Micro Express has been in business since 1986. The California company offers a two-year limited warranty and free technical support throughout the laptop's lifetime. Since it's a smaller company, user reliability and service surveys don't often include this brand, so we didn't find much owner feedback for service and support.

In its base configuration, the 6.6-pound Micro Express IFL9025 has a 15.4-inch display. The new 2.4GHz processor highlights the components, which also include 2GB of RAM, a 250GB SATA hard drive, a DVD burner, Ethernet and wireless connectors (for broadband) and an analog modem (for dial-up). Everything is upgradeable, and upgrade prices are modest. Maximized, the computer only costs about $1,700. PC World measured battery life as 3.8 hours -- better than for larger gaming laptops.

The Dell XPS M1530 (starting at *est. $1,000) and Toshiba Satellite X205 (starting at *est. $1,450) each top a couple of reviews. The Dell has a 15.5-inch display. Dell markets it as a multimedia notebook computer. It comes with a video card and has some extra multimedia features, which distinguishes it from a business laptop, but it falls short of strong gaming capability when compared with the higher-end Dell XPS M1730. The Toshiba laptop has a 17-inch screen. It is only sold in five stock configurations, with limited distribution (three models are sold direct).

Business laptops
Business laptops aren't just for businesspeople. They are an excellent choice for anyone who is more interested in working than playing with a laptop. They don't need video cards or big hard drives, which makes them cheaper than entertainment laptops. They do need reasonable portability, however, as well as much-better-than-average reliability and durable cases.

Business laptops can be divided into two categories: mainstream and ultraportable. Mainstream business laptops usually have 14.1- or 15.4-inch displays and are better able to stand up to the rigors of heavy handling. Ultraportable laptops are typically less functional and durable, but more expensive. However, their light weight, smaller screens (usually 12.1 inches) and thin profiles make them much easier to tote around. If you are most interested in the easiest portability, please see our report on ultraportable laptops .

NotebookCheck.net, PC Magazine, NotebookReview.com and Laptop magazine all recognize the Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (starting at *est. $950) as the best business laptop. Reviewers have admired the quality of ThinkPad laptops for years. NotebookCheck.net gives the Lenovo ThinkPad T61 extraordinarily high scores for workmanship, keyboard and application performance. Construction is particularly rugged, with new internal hardware called a "roll cage," which adds to the price. Weaknesses are few, but include a short battery life and a not-too-bright and off-center display that some reviewers found disconcerting throughout the testing and usage process.

Every aspect of the IBM T61's configuration is customizable. That includes a dozen battery options, which allows you to make your own weight versus battery-life tradeoff. Typical review configuration was in the $2,000 to $2,500 range. The ThinkPad T61 includes both a trackpoint (commonly called an eraserhead) and a touchpad, which gives users a choice of input device. It has an integrated biometric fingerprint reader for security. You can choose between a 14.1-inch conventional or widescreen display and a 15.4-inch widescreen display.

The 14.1-inch Dell Latitude D630 (starting at *est. $850) is the closest competitor to the Lenovo ThinkPad T61. TrustedReviews.com and CNet.com select it as the best business laptop. However, both PC Magazine and Laptop magazine specifically say the T61 is better, and in a list of cons, NotebookReview.com says the Dell keyboard is "not a Lenovo keyboard." Thus, we see the Dell Latitude D630 as a budget alternative to the Lenovo ThinkPad T61, and we cover it in our report on cheap laptops .

The 14-inch Dell Inspiron 1420 (starting at *est. $650) is the consumer counterpart to the Dell Latitude D630 business laptop. ReviewPub.com has the best and most comprehensive review. The anonymous reviewer's choice of benchmark comparisons is impressive and fair. The reviewer says that the Dell Inspiron laptop is quiet and runs well, but adds that it's a little clunky and heavy. The reviewer also says the display is somewhat grainy. NotebookReview.com has a similar user review with similar conclusions. At CNet.com, the Inspiron 1420 performs well enough in benchmark tests to be seriously considered by anyone looking for a mainstream laptop. Because of its low starting price, the Dell Inspiron 1420 is also covered in the ConsumerSearch report on cheap laptops .

The Fujitsu LifeBook S6510 (starting at *est. $1,530) is the best business laptop according to a couple of reviews, but other reviewers aren't as sure. NotebookReview.com is among those who like the laptop, and the site honors it with an Editors' Choice award. Jerry Jackson explains, “The S6510 is the thinnest and lightest 14-inch notebook we've seen. Performance is on par with (or superior to) the competition, and the build quality is among the best you can find in the $1,500 to $2,000 price range.” One negative is that the display is not as good as those on other Fujitsu LifeBook laptops.

PC Magazine's Cisco Cheng sees the LifeBook S6510 as embodying the best of a regular laptop and an ultraportable because the unit has a 14.1-inch display and full-size keyboard, but only weighs 3.8 pounds. Computer Shopper’s Jamie Bsales and Laptop magazine's Jeffrey Wilson agree. Wilson and Cheng say the LifeBook is a near-ideal blend of performance and portability. These three reviewers tested the Fujitsu at $2,040 -- expensive for a notebook computer in this size class. PC World and CNet.com's reviews also question the value, and therefore rate other comparable laptops more highly. Battery-life test results are all over the map.

Important Features: Laptops
One of the most important decisions you'll face when choosing a laptop is the size and type of screen. The issue quickly becomes confusing given the variety of display technologies available. The first consideration, size, is more straightforward. Experts and laptop owners agree that larger screens of 15 and 17 inches are easier to use for hours at a time. In a home or office, you can connect a laptop to an external monitor.

Manufacturers offer several choices of displays for most of the models covered in this report. In most model lines, display sizes are fixed, but you can choose among several levels of quality and resolution. Sometimes you can choose between a coated screen (brighter and sharper) or uncoated screen (which some people prefer for work applications because they are less susceptible to glare and reflections). Backlit LED displays are the newest improvement.

Experts say to look for the following in a notebook computer:

Get a Core 2 Duo processor with Santa Rosa or Penryn technology. Most laptops use Intel's Core 2 Duo CPUs. Budget models have older Intel processors or AMD processors. The Core 2 Duo supports 64-bit processing, which has an advantage for video editing and working with large amounts of data, such as databases, when software exists that can take advantage of it. Models with the new Intel Penryn processors are especially recommended, but they are just now reaching the market.
Make sure to get at least 1GB of RAM. Typically, high-end notebooks have 2GB of RAM, which can help applications run more quickly and smoothly. It will also allow you to run more applications at once without system drag. Despite Microsoft's recommendations, reviewers say a minimum of 1GB of RAM is needed for running Windows Vista, and 2GB or more is better. Laptops rarely have internal expandability, so maximizing your RAM at the time of purchase is the best course. Unless the laptop has an open RAM slot, you will need to replace your existing RAM if you decide to upgrade in the future.
Consider the display coating. Reflective screen coatings are still popular, since they make graphics and movies look more saturated. However, these screen coatings can be problematic in an office, where lighting and movement can create glare. If you plan mainly on office work, consider choosing a notebook without a glossy coating or pay more for a backlit LED display. Manufacturers let you choose with many models.
Most laptops come with at least 80GB hard drives. Photo, music and video files take up a lot of space. Adding a larger hard drive when you configure a system is a worthwhile upgrade if you collect media files (music, photos or videos). You cannot add an additional internal hard drive to most laptops, so allowing room for growth can be a good investment. However, if the manufacturer gives you a choice of a bigger hard drive or a faster one (which we found is often the case), faster is better for most people.
Think about wireless connectivity. Almost all laptops now come with integrated Wi-Fi. Some also come with an antenna for the Verizon and Sprint EV-DO or Cingular's EDGE Wide Area LAN (WAN), which lets you connect to the Internet anywhere in range of the provider's data network (mostly major cities). A variety of new wireless technologies is usually an option.
Take note of service/support and warranty. Warranties range from one to three years. A one-year warranty is the norm for entertainment and gaming laptops, but three years is common for business laptops. All manufacturers offer warranty upgrades, and prices can vary by model (as is true of Dell laptops). Tech support is generally free during the warranty period, but not thereafter. Because all laptops are proprietary and have few user-replaceable parts, ExtremeTech and other experts recommend, "Get the best warranty you can afford. Unlike desktop computers, laptop PCs' parts cannot be swapped out if something fails." Manufacturers such as Dell and HP are adding extras such as theft insurance to warranty upgrades to make them more attractive.
Consider software. Consumer laptops are bundled with software; unfortunately, it's usually not the software you really want or need. For example, you won't get Microsoft Office without specifically paying extra for it. Instead, you get bloatware that consists of expiring trial versions of programs, crippled software (unless you pay to unlock full functionality) and adware. Usually you get a temporary version of an antivirus program. Reviewers say that software manufacturers pay to have the junky software loaded, so it lowers the price of your computer. Smaller brands include less bloatware. Dell will allow you to order some models without all the extra software.
Multimedia and gaming laptops typically come with the Vista Home Premium operating, and business laptops most often come with Vista Business. You can still opt for Windows XP on some models, but only through June. Business users should consider checking with their employer as to Vista compatibility of company software. Critics of Vista are uniform in their complaints that Vista was rushed to market, and compatibility with a large percentage of hardware and software is still unresolved. Microsoft is beta testing SP1 for Vista, which should make it to the public in late 2008. This revision will hopefully fix some of these criticisms.

The Vista operating systems include voice-recognition software, parental controls and a comprehensive system search function. The security upgrades have received much attention, but do not reduce the need for third-party antivirus and anti-spyware programs. However, Vista does include a two-way firewall (XP only has a one-way firewall).

Windows Vista Basic Home replaces Windows XP Home, and experts say it is fine for most purposes. One feature that Vista Basic Home does lack is the Windows Mobility Center, which Microsoft is promoting for laptops. The Windows Mobility Center includes battery-conservation software, fast resumption from hibernation, an improved battery meter, support for a second display, presentation features and a HotStart button that lets you access media controls without fully booting to Windows. (For example, you can play a CD with the laptop closed.)

Windows XP Media Center Edition is replaced by Windows Vista Home Premium, which includes the Macintosh-like Aero interface. Reviewers love the look and feel of Aero, but it needs lot of memory to run smoothly, making 2GB of RAM almost essential. Vista Home Premium's lineup of features includes Windows Movie Maker and Movie Maker HD, DVD and CD recording software, Xbox 360 compatibility, Windows Photo Gallery and tools for organizing and locating media.

Vista Business lacks multimedia features, but adds backup and restore software and remote access, as well as faxing and scanning software. It also includes Aero.

Vista Ultimate combines all the features of the Home Premium and Business versions, and adds an encryption feature that lets users lock their hard drive. Check the Windows website for more details on all of the versions of Windows Vista

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